Simons, Menno

views updated


SIMONS, MENNO (14961561). Dutch priest, the major northern European leader of an Anabaptist group that later came to be known as the Mennonite church. His firm leadership and numerous writings helped to consolidate the pacifist wing of early Dutch Anabaptism and to make it normative, after the ill-fated attempt of some to establish the kingdom of God by force in the northern German city of Münster in 15341535.

Simons was born of peasant stock in Witmarsum, in the province of Friesland, in 1496 and was enrolled in a monastic school at an early age. Since Friesland was dominated by the Premonstratensian Order at that time, and since Simons was installed in 1524 by that order as a priest in Pingjum as well as in his home parish of Witmarsum in 1531, it may be assumed that he was a member of that order and received his training in it, perhaps in the nearby monastery of Vinea Domini. The order was known for its excellent libraries and the emphasis it placed upon education.

Simons's religious struggle began early in his career as a priest, in connection with his celebration of the Mass. His doubts about the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine indicate that Reformation ideas had reached Friesland. He wrote later that he had searched the writings of the reformers in vain for answers to the question of infant baptism, which became his second concern. His problem with the Mass was most likely inspired by the antisacramental movement in the Netherlands, as well as by Erasmian humanism and the teachings of the Brethren of the Common Life. Questions about the validity of infant baptism may have arisen when Simons heard that an Anabaptist tailor named Sicke Freerks had been publicly executed in nearby Leeuwarden for having himself baptized a second time, but it appears also that Simons had already encountered literature on the subject before this event.

In his search for answers Simons eventually turned to the scriptures, which he had apparently not read during his days as a student at the monastery. Yet he must have held the scriptures to be a significant authority, for he expressed deep disappointment at not finding in them the kind of support he felt necessary for the practice of the Mass and infant baptism. He continued to serve in his priestly office, but his new studies must have begun to change his emphasis, for by 1528 he had become known as an "evangelical preacher." According to Simons's own account, his spiritual pilgrimage was a gradual transition, lasting eleven years, from a routine reliance on tradition to a deep personal faith in Christ and reliance on the scriptures as final authority in matters of faith. Gradually his views became known, and by January 1536 he had found it prudent to go into hiding. He used this time for spiritual exercises and writing. After nearly a year had elapsed he accepted a call from a representative Anabaptist delegation to be the spiritual leader of the scattered groups of believers. He was baptized and ordained by Obbe Philips. Sometime during this interim period Simons also married a woman about whom little more than her name, Gertrude, is known.

Simons's personal and theological point of departure was the new birth. His first major treatise, entitled The Spiritual Resurrection (1536), was followed a year later by a restatement of this theme under the title The New Birth (1537). This emphasis on conversion occurs centrally in his subsequent writings, particularly when he refers to his own spiritual struggle before 1536.

Intimately related to this theme was his emphasis on the nature of the church. Simons was convinced that the church had fallen from its apostolic purity in both doctrine and life. Reformation of the present structures was no longer possible; a new beginning patterned after the church in the Bible was called for. This was, in large part, the content of his three writings of 1539: Foundation of Christian Doctrine, Christian Baptism, and Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing. Grace and ethics were to go hand in hand. The true church is the bride of Christ and must, therefore, be without spot or wrinkle (Eph. 5:27). Simons did not believe in sinless perfection, but rather that Christians must help each other achieve the fullness of life in Christ through both faith and obedience.

This vision of the church, as well as cultural acceptance and economic prosperity, led to a dynamic witness at all social levels. But it also led to numerous divisions that were to trouble the later years of Simons's work. Because of these tensions, many of his writings came to be unduly defensive and polemical. Circumstances, and his co-workers, forced him into a harsher stand on excommunication and the ban (exclusion from membership) than he had taught earlier.

The doctrine of a pure church also forced him into polemical exchanges with Reformed theologians and others on his view of the incarnation. A pure church required a pure Savior. Hence Simons believed that Jesus had received both his divine and his human nature directly from God, and that Mary was as passive as a glass of water through which a ray of sun passes. Although this Christology of heavenly flesh was not new by that time, and was also taught by others, it brought ridicule to Simons as he tried, with increasing bitterness, to defend the doctrine.

Simons led a harried and persecuted life. In 1542 a bounty of one hundred guilders was offered by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (15001558) for his capture; this did not seriously disrupt his travels, even though some who had given him lodging and food were executed. His journeys extended from Friesland to the Cologne area, and east to Danzig (present-day Gdansk). He was eventually permitted to settle in Holstein, northeast of Hamburg, perhaps because he had broken with earlier Anabaptists in expressing his belief that a Christian could also be a magistrate, provided that he lives in obedience to Christ. Extensive writings continued to flow from his pen and press in Holstein until his death on January 31, 1561.


The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 14961561, edited by J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, Pa., 1956), remains the standard English sourcebook. Irvin B. Horst has prepared a scholar's research guide entitled A Bibliography of Menno Simons (The Hague, 1962). The most comprehensive recent biography has been written by Christoph Bornhäuser, Leben und Lehre Menno Simons ʾ (Neukirchen, 1973). Cornelius Krahn's Dutch Anabaptism: Origin, Spread, Life and Thought, 14501600 (The Hague, 1968) places Simons's work into the broader context of Dutch and Anabaptist history.

Cornelius J. Dyck (1987)